Mental Model Toolkit: Finite and Infinite Games

My previous post introduced the concepts of mental models. These are frameworks that help us better understand how the world works, and can be eye opening if used in the right context.

One of my favorites mental models is the concept of finite and infinite games.

We all grew up playing both types of games, even if we didn’t realize it. When James Carse introduced the concept in his book, he defined them as:

  • Finite Games: Played for the purpose of winning, in which participants obey rules, recognize boundaries, and announce winners and losers
  • Infinite Games: Played for the purpose of continuing the game, where participants can change the rules and there is no definition of winning

Sports are the classic example of a finite game. Whether basketball, soccer, football, or golf, they each have defined rules that everyone follows. The referees act as judges and the game ends when a winner meets the defined criteria (typically the most points in a defined timeframe).

If you have ever watched a group of young kids play together, you are probably witnessing an infinite game. The rules keep changing, and no one is focused on “winning” in the classic sense. They may start with a ball, then run to the slide, and then bolt across the field. The only goal is to keep having fun.

In the adult world, “business” is an infinite game. There is no way to “win business”. You can be the best at something (sales in the quarter, market cap, customer satisfaction), but only for a moment. If you are a business owner, your ultimate goal is simply to keep playing. The alternative means going out of business (ie. the game ends).

Life is the ultimate infinite game. There are no defined rules and the goal for most people is to play as long as possible.

But sometimes you have a choice as to which type of game you want to play.

Let’s go back to the business world and more specifically careers. Career as a game can be played either way.

If you use a finite game mindset, your career is a series of contests. A position opens up and you apply. You either win it or you don’t. Regardless, you sign up for the next contest, and again you either win or lose. The consequence is that your mental attitude is driven by your “record”. If you are winning, you are happy. If you lose, you are sad. That’s what it means to play a finite game.

What if you treated your career as an infinite game? What if there was no “winning”? If there is no winning, you can stop worrying about the score. The mindset shifts to continuing the game. And some of the best ways to do that are building skills, looking for new and interesting opportunities, and meeting new people. Ιf you are learning and growing, you will tend to be happy. If you don’t like how it’s going, you are no longer at the whim of your company or your boss. You start to think about how to change the rules of what is now your own personal game. 

If you use this mental model enough, you start to see patterns. Want a successful marriage? Treat it as an infinite game. It’s not about being right (ie. winning), it’s about continuing to play (which means that you need to think about what your partner really wants and help them get it). Health is an infinite game. You can’t win exercise. 

Finite games are fine for entertainment, but the most important things in life work better as infinite games.

When you have a choice, play the infinite game.

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